General Convention 79: The view from Madison’s Capitol Square

My twitter and facebook feeds are full of posts from real and social media friends who are traveling to Austin, TX for the Episcopal Church General Convention. I’m not among those who will be attending. In fact, I’ve never attended General Convention. As this one approaches, by my calculations the ninth since I joined the Episcopal Church, I am fascinated by how my engagement with this triennial event has changed over time.

Early on, I’m not sure I even knew what it was or cared very much about it. It wasn’t until I entered the ordination process and began getting involved on the diocesan level that I began attention. Coincidentally, that was right around 2003, when the decade-long conflict that began with the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, broke out. As that conflict continued and as the debate over same-sex marriage also exploded, I paid close attention to events at General Convention and the discussions and jockeying that occurred in the months leading up to the meetings.

This year feels quite different. It’s not that there are no controversial issues on the table: prayer book revision, several resolutions about marriage rites, and addressing sexual harassment in the Church are all important and likely to gain attention outside the confines of The Episcopal Church.

I know there are many who are passionate about General Convention. It is an important aspect of our Church’s governance and for many it is an opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones. I’m grateful for both aspects of this gathering, for the work that takes place and for the relationships it nurtures.

At the same time, I find myself less interested in what will take place there. I think there are a couple of reasons for this lack of interest. First, I have been in my current position for nine years. The longer I stay here, the more focused my ministry becomes on my local context. Madison is confronting a number of serious issues: homelessness, of course, which because of the presence of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter here at Grace is always at the top of the church’s and my list of priorities. In addition, Madison, Dane County, and the State of Wisconsin have among the most significant racial inequities of any state in the nation and closely related to that is mass incarceration which affects us through the presence nearby of the Dane County Jail.

In addition, since 2011, we have been at the epicenter of political conflict in our state and by extension the nation. Since the protests that erupted around Governor Walker’s plans to transform the State of Wisconsin into a laboratory for conservative policies, hardly a month goes by without rallies on the streets and sidewalks outside our doors. Just last week, as we were celebrating and blessing a marriage, outside our doors thousands were rallying as part of the nationwide Keep Families Together effort. I have participated in more such rallies in my nine years of ministry here than I did in the previous five decades of my life.

Finally, as I continue to work in Madison, my relationships with clergy of other denominations and my ecumenical engagement have become as important, if not more so, than my relationships with Episcopal clergy and the larger church. I have participated on commissions of the Wisconsin Council of Churches for most of the time I have been here and have been nurtured by relationships formed with clergy colleagues there and in Madison. As denominational structures continue to transform in the wake of the demographic and cultural decline of mainline Christianity, such relationships and ecumenical partnerships may become more important.

 

I suppose what I’m saying is that context matters. As my tenure at Grace lengthens, the relationships I have built with parishioners and the wider community come to matter much more. The problems and challenges of our city take center stage, and my capacity to engage creatively and effectively with those challenges and opportunities grows. It’s not that the denomination as a whole, nor indeed the worldwide Anglican Communion, no longer matter to me, but rather, I experience those larger entities through a perspective increasingly shaped by my local context.

I am looking at General Convention from the corner of N. Carroll St. and W. Washington Ave., in Madison. So even as the work of General Convention goes on, I will also be doing the work of ministry, administration, and advocacy in this place, grateful for that work and calling, and grateful for all of those others called to do the work of the larger church. My prayers are with and for them.

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I won’t be signing on…

I haven’t blogged Episcopal matters much in recent months for several reasons. First, I’ve been focused on other matters in my day-to-day ministry and as we prepare for renovations at Grace. Perhaps more importantly, there are urgent needs and issues in Madison and the nation that have demanded attention. And frankly, although the Triennial General Convention is a little more than a month away and the usual verbiage and posturing related to it are well underway, I haven’t found any of it particularly compelling. That’s surprising, because there are a number of important issues that will come before Convention—reports from the marriage task force, same sex blessings, restructuring, and the election of a new Presiding Bishop.

The level of my disengagement and disinterest was only slightly altered by the release yesterday of A Memorial to the Church: “Calling the 78th General Convention to Proclaim Resurrection.” Crafted by eight people and with a lengthy list of signatures from bishops, deputies, and others, the document is a plea for the transformation of the Episcopal Church:

 We, the undersigned, hold dear the Episcopal Church and believe passionately in the gift this church offers. Washed in the waters of Baptism and nourished from the deep springs of word and sacrament, we experience the power of God’s presence as we open the Scriptures and celebrate the Eucharist. We stand in awe of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the power of the triune God to love, to forgive, to make whole. We know the joy of serving God through serving others. We long for a world with every unjust structure toppled. We love this church enough to yearn for it to be transformed.

The authors urge General Convention to take action:

Engage creatively, openly, and prayerfully in reading the signs of the times and discerning the particular ways God is speaking to the Episcopal Church now;

 

Pray, read the scriptures, and listen deeply for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in electing a new Presiding Bishop and other leaders, in entering into creative initiatives for the spread of the kingdom, and in restructuring the church for mission;

 

Fund evangelism initiatives extravagantly: training laborers to go into the harvest to revitalize existing congregations and plant new ones; forming networks and educational offerings to train and deploy church planters and revitalizers who will follow Jesus into all kinds of neighborhoods; and creating training opportunities for bilingual and bi-cultural ministry;

 

Release our hold on buildings, structures, comfortable habits, egos, and conflicts that do not serve the church well;

 

Remove obstacles embedded in current structures, however formerly useful or well-meaning, that hinder new and creative mission and evangelism initiatives;

 

Refocus our energies from building up a large, centralized, expensive, hierarchical church-wide structure, to networking and supporting mission at the local level, where we all may learn how to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.

As I read, and although I am familiar with and respect many of the authors of the document, I wondered, “What world do they live in?”

That question reverberated as I read another document prepared for General Convention published the same day, “The Report on the Church.”

The four-year trend (2009-2013) shows an 8 percent decrease in active membership and a 9 percent decline in average Sunday attendance. The 10-year trend data provides a longer view of what has occurred in the life of the domestic dioceses of The Episcopal Church. In that period, the Church has seen an 18 percent decrease in active membership and a 24 percent decrease in Average Sunday Attendance. Communicants in Good Standing also declined by 18 percent during the last 10 years. It should be noted, however, that the severity of annual declines began to moderate somewhat in 2011, with domestic losses dropping from around 50,000 members per year to less than 29,000 per year for three consecutive years (2011-2013).

I began to wonder not only “What world do they live in?” but “What church do they live in?”

The Pew Survey that was released earlier this work shows a dramatic decline in religious affiliation in the US, a trend especially prominent among “millennials.” It’s not just about the decline of traditional mainline Christianity. It’s a transformation in the way people express and embody their religious lives. What might “discipleship” look like or mean in that context?

Don’t get me wrong. I think what the document advocates is spot on. My criticism is that it isn’t radical enough. Perhaps we need to be ready to “release our hold” on the Episcopal Church itself.

This past Tuesday, while I marched with other clergy through the streets of Madison in the wake of the DA’s decision not to prosecute in the shooting of Tony Robinson, I was struck both by the power and privilege of our symbols and buildings as well as by their relative irrelevance to the lives and issues facing our community. Clergy and lay people were present. We spoke, marched, prayed, and sang but most of the energy, passion, and message came from others. We contributed our prestige, privilege, and whatever moral authority we carry. And the final gathering on the steps of Grace was a great photo-op.

As we marched, I had a conversation with a retired Episcopal priest about the Pew Survey and what it meant for the Episcopal Church. I told him I thought that the Church would die but that the spirit of Anglicanism could live on in new forms of community and in new ways of being Anglican. But we must let that spirit blow where it will, and not try to divert it to rekindle the dying embers of old fires. I suspect the Episcopal Church lingers in those dying embers.

I want to spend my time and energy in following where the spirit is blowing, into new ways of being church, new ways of encountering Jesus, and new ways of connecting with those who are seeking spiritual meaning. If the institutional church can be transformed to do those things, fine, but I’m not going to be fighting that battle. There’s too much else at stake.

 

The Shame of Being Episcopalian

On Friday evening, I received an email blast from Interfaith Worker Justice. It’s an email list I’d been on since 2011 and the protests at the State Capitol in Madison. Back then, I offered Grace’s hospitality to people of faith and somehow, my name was added to Interfaith Worker Justice email list. I’d always meant to unsubscribe because as important as the issues they raise are, my energy, time, and passion are focused in other directions.

On Friday, however, the issue wasn’t the minimum wage but the events at General Theological School that began with the firing of 8 faculty, a decision that was affirmed at the Board of Trustees meeting this past week. As I read the email I felt the shame rising in myself to know that once again the leadership of the Episcopal Church seemed to be acting immorally, unpastorally, and in ways antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ. In spite of my shame and embarrassment, I recognized the irony of the appeal to the Presiding Bishop in the petition that the email highlighted. The PB had been on campus in the days after the initial firing of the faculty (taught one of the classes as a “replacement) and is an ex officio board member.

Others, most notably Crusty Old Dean and AKM Adam have laid out the labor issues at stake and the offense that that the Board of Trustees is acting in ways that General Convention has denounced (or would denounce) if it were occurring in corporate America or perhaps in foreign lands. As a former academic myself, and as a former short-term faculty member of an Episcopal seminary, I was always uncomfortable with the effort to view relations between faculties and administrations in light of labor law. I always thought (and still do) that the labor model distorts what ought to be happening in colleges, universities, and seminaries, especially when those institutions claim to be church-related. I know the necessity of it, but I think it diminishes the mission, purpose, and quality of relationships all around.

In fact, what bothers me most about the situation at GTS is not so much the labor issues at stake. It is not even the claim made by many that the actions of the Board of Trustees go against church canons and the gospel (although they seem to). What bothers me most is that this seems to me to be an extension of a trend we have been witnessing for the last decade in the Episcopal Church–the insistence by the leadership to seek recourse to legal remedy, to defend prerogatives and property against every claim, to pursue a scorched-earth policy in protection of the institution, and to offer reconciliation after the trials are over (but while the wounds are still raw).

What’s happening at GTS is not unlike what has happened to bishops (remember the PB declaring that the Bishop of South Carolina had abandoned communion?), to dioceses, and now to a seminary. A petition that appeals the Presiding Bishop to take action?

It’s doubly ironic that all this is occurring as we’re still digesting the recent report from the Taskforce on Reimagining the Episcopal Church with its recommendations for a stronger “CEO” as Presiding Bishop, a smaller Executive Council, and contract workers as church-wide staff. We are eyewitnesses to the restructuring of General Theological Seminary with its evisceration of faculty governance and lasting damage to a community of formation. I have advocated strongly for the need to reform the structures of the church, but if what emerges is less shared governance and more centralized power, count me among the resistance.

What I fear most is that over the last decade we have sown the wind, and now we are reaping the whirlwind.

Bishop Dietsche of the Episcopal Diocese of New York (and a member of the GTS Board of Trustees) has issued this statement:

it is my hope that we may yet find a way to work within the structure provided by this resolution to continue to press forward toward that which we still believe must be done, and that is to reinstate the eight faculty in full, and to do that this week.

Bishop Breidenthal (Diocese of Southern Ohio) has also spoken publicly in defense of the fired GTS faculty.

People may not come to church but they’ll come to a bowling alley: Random thoughts and links on sacred space

The quotation comes from the pastor of a church in Birmingham AL:

People may not want to come to a church, but they’ll come to a bowling alley. People have needs other than spiritual needs. There’s a need for safe, clean, uplifting, family-oriented entertainment.”

Read it all here

Laura Ortberg Turner reflects on the sacrality of different churches which she has attended:

The church I attend now is two thousand miles away. We take communion every week, walking down squeaky hardwood floors—all one hundred twenty of us—past stained glass windows, toward the giant cross behind the stage. The smells and history and personality of this building shape my experience of worship, too. The strong wine a regular testament to the shock of the resurrection; the pews an invitation to sit close to the people I don’t know but already love; the constant, drafty chill a reminder of the building’s history in a city where everything else seems new. There is a sense in the room that we are surrounded by people who are not there, and if I don’t quite mean ghosts. I also don’t mean just those who are alive and present. It is full of that great cloud of witnesses that has filled the sanctuary for a century before us.

Steve Swayne ponders the differences between what he labels “stadium” and “sanctuary” culture. Thinking about the way people milled around a college commencement ceremony, he connected that behavior with “stadium” culture. He much prefers “sanctuary” culture.

And beyond lower blood pressure and better health outcomes, sanctuary culture at its best forces us to see and hear more of the world around us. It helps us to see and hear that world better. And if the history of lectures and libraries and liturgies shows us anything, the deliberation inherent in sanctuary culture, more than the carnivalesque nature of stadium culture, holds the key to make our world better than it is today.

Just a couple of quick observations about that. First, I’m not sure that “lectures” participate in “sanctuary” culture, or that they have for thirty years. I remember a class at Harvard for which I was a Teaching Fellow in 1987. The class enrolled almost 1000 undergraduates and we often remarked that the room was never quiet. Students were always coming and going.

And the idea that people sit quietly in church or concert halls is a relatively recent phenomenon as well. Pews only came on the scene in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and we know from sermons throughout the preceding history of Christianity that preachers complained bitterly that their congregations were milling about, coming in and out, engaging in conversations (even transacting business deals).

And I wonder what Swayne would think about the phenomenon of Social Media Sunday?

At the same time, physical space does shape us profoundly and helps to form us as human beings and as Christians. Worshiping in something that looks very much like an auditorium or movie theater invites behavior appropriate to those places.

 

Update on Same Sex Blessings in the Diocese of Milwaukee

The Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee has published its report on the feedback it received from parishes on the trial liturgy for Same Sex Blessings. It has also made a recommendation to Bishop Miller on how he might respond to those findings.

I would like to highlight a few things in the report. First of all, most parishes responded in some way to the Standing Committee’s request. Second, out of the forty-three parishes that did respond, only one expressed itself strongly opposed to the authorization of the use of the liturgy (1 on a scale of 1-5). In contrast, 13 parishes were strongly in favor (5 on the scale of 1-5), and 11 were generally in favor (4 on the scale). 11 staked out middle ground (3). To put that in percentiles: 55.8% were either strongly or generally in favor; 18.6% generally or strongly opposed; with 25.6% in the middle.

When looking at how these parishes break down in terms of average Sunday attendance, a total of 16.1% of total Sunday attendance were either generally or strongly opposed over against 59.7% of total attendance in parishes either generally or strongly in favor (with over 40% attendance in parishes strongly in favor). What both of these figures show is wide-ranging and overwhelming support for the trial rite.

Based on these findings, the Standing Committee made the following recommendation to Bishop Miller:

The Standing Committee recommends that Bishop Miller authorize a local option for a rite of blessing of same-gender couples living in committed, lifelong, covenant
relationships. A local option would give permission for individual clergy of the diocese to decide to use the rite or not in his or her own parish.

The entire document is available here: Standing Committee Report2 (1).

Here is Grace’s statement of inclusion: LGBTstatement_revised_01292014, developed in response to the conversations we held over the fall and winter.

Of course, we’ve been talking about this for much longer than that. General Convention 2012 approved the trial use of the liturgy; we had conversations among bishop and clergy in the Diocese of Milwaukee in  the months after General Convention and again in 2013.

Meanwhile, the courts continue to act. Constitutional bans in Kentucky and Indiana have been overturned and just today the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (a court that also has jurisdiction in Wisconsin) ruled in favor of an emergency request by an Indiana couple to have their marriage recognized in Indiana. The story is here:

Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual adventure: A Sermon for June 29, 2014

I had a series of conversations this week that had a common theme—the spiritual journeys we are on in our lives. My conversation partners differed in many respects. Some were members or friends of Grace, some were newcomers, seekers, one was a woman I met at a gathering at the university. Of all of them, the most interesting journey was that of Peter Reinhart, the bread baker, teacher and writer who visited UW this week. Peter was raised Jewish, encountered yoga and eastern religions in the sixties and early seventies, found his way into an intentional community that combined aspects of new thought, eastern religions, and Christianity and eventually with that community joined the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. Continue reading

In Wisconsin, Episcopalians dither while #lovewins

We knew it was coming. After last summer’s Supreme Court decision and the series of decisions throughout the country throwing out state bans on gay marriage, it was bound to happen in Wisconsin as well. And it did yesterday afternoon.

I’ve documented the conversations at Grace Church and in the Diocese of Milwaukee regarding same sex blessings on this blog. Grace’s public statement of full inclusion is available here: LGBTstatement_revised_01292014. But those conversations occurred with little reference to the larger legal context. We submitted our responses to the Standing Committee’s survey in December and are waiting to hear what other congregations and clergy throughout the diocese had to say.

More telling, perhaps, is the almost total silence around our collective response when gay marriage became a legal reality. In my recollection, I had only one conversation with fellow clergy in the last months about how Episcopalians might proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ’s love when marriage equality became a reality in the state of Wisconsin. My colleague Miranda Hassett and her family went down to the City-County Building last night to be present among the celebrations:

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I’m grateful to her for that.

As Episcopal clergy and as a church, we have painted ourselves into a very small corner. It’s going to be increasingly difficult for our congregations to claim to be open and welcoming to LGBT Christians when we refuse to extend the sacrament of marriage to them. As clergy, we are no longer going to be able to use the excuse that same sex marriage is forbidden in the state constitution when couples approach us to solemnize their vows. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have had frank conversations about this in the past months. Instead, we dithered and kept our mouths shut.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing the finger anywhere except myself. I dithered, kept my mouth shut, and didn’t raise questions when opportunities presented themselves.